Working For Sobriety: Oklahoma Recovery Program Took Some Clients' Disability Pay

Dec 13, 2018

Dustin Misener started using drugs in his early teens growing up in rural Oklahoma. By his 30s, he was battling an addiction to methamphetamine and had racked up multiple drug-related convictions in Oklahoma.

“I was just getting out there pretty bad,” Misener said.

Misener, 32, is a U.S. Army veteran. Now he works cutting grass and setting up stage equipment for concerts. His hands are lined and calloused from a life of hard work.

When a nonprofit program in Oklahoma City called Firstep promised Misener help with sobriety in exchange for working on a demolition crew, it seemed like a good deal— until he got injured on the job.

At Firstep, Misener attended 12-step meetings, ate food that primarily came from a local food bank, and slept in one of the rows of bunk beds in a converted trailer while the program kept most of his wages.

The program pays participants minimum wage and keeps all but 5 percent of the money to pay for room and board. Typically, participants get to keep about $25 out of each paycheck to pay for things like soap and toothpaste.

After Misener fell off a scaffold at a construction site, Firstep took most of the money from his disability check and asked him to leave the program.

“I just handed it to them you know and didn’t think nothing of it, not realizing that they were just trying to get my money,” he said.

Former clients said Firstep kept or attempted to take a portion of their disability benefits from workers’ compensation insurance after they were injured on the job — a practice that could violate state law, a joint investigation by StateImpact Oklahoma and The Frontier found.

Firstep sits on land owned by the city and Oklahoma City has awarded the program more than half a million dollars in federal funding over the past year for expansion, city records show.

The city’s lease agreement with Firstep contains a provision requiring the recovery program to abide by all local, state and federal laws.

Firstep is also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor over how much the nonprofit deducts from its client’s wages for expenses like food and lodging.

The Department of Labor has already ordered some employers who use workers recovering from addiction from the Firstep program to pay back wages and fines. Employers who have incurred federal wage law penalties include the City of Oklahoma City, which uses Firstep workers as a source of low-cost labor, for mostly manual labor jobs cutting grass and picking up litter.

StateImpact Oklahoma and The Frontier learned about Firstep from Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting as part of a network of local journalists working to investigate work-based rehab programs across the country.

Firstep wants to become a model for work-based recovery programs in the state — possibly becoming the first to gain certification from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

But The Frontier and StateImpact interviewed six former Firstep clients who said the program was more focused on keeping their wages than drug and alcohol recovery.

Firstep resident advisor Jennifer Santos stands outside the women’s dormitory. Santos became a staff member after graduating the program and said Firstep helped her get sober.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Former Firestep participants said they slept on bunk beds, ate expired bologna sandwiches each day for lunch and did not receive any counseling outside of 12-step meetings led my other residents.

Oklahoma has a shortage of drug treatment programs. Participants in Oklahoma’s drug court system can wait for months for a bed at a licensed, state-funded treatment program.

Many people struggling with addiction are also unable to afford or access private treatment or counseling. Whatever the quality of the programs, Firstep and other work-based recovery programs fill the gap in many instances.

Firstep and other work-based recovery programs like it operate in a regulatory grey area in Oklahoma. Officials with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services say that as long as such programs don’t claim to offer treatment for addiction, they aren’t required to undergo inspections or licensing by the state.

Participants at other work-based recovery programs across the state report other kinds of problems, including poor living conditions, unmet medical needs and on-the-job injuries. A few programs are under investigation for misusing clients’ food stamp benefits.

Unlike state-certified programs, there are no minimum requirements for staffing or for the amount of counseling and treatment work-based recovery programs like Firstep must provide. Nor are there limits on the number of hours participants are required to work.

Firstep Executive Director Connie Schlittler said the program has been working to improve its offerings and reform some of its labor practices over the last year.

The program provides help with sobriety to people who would otherwise never have access to a traditional in-patient drug treatment program, she said.

“It’s never been a treatment center,” Schlittler said. “It’s always been more housing and employment program.”

Stable housing and steady work was a vital part of recovery for Mary Bertsch, one of several participants with positive experiences Firstep officials made available for interviews.

Bertsch, 31, of Okmulgee, joined the program in March on the recommendation of a probation officer after she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession charges. She was placed in a job working the early morning shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Midwest City.

Firstep connected Bertsch with a counselor and classes including Bible study.

Bertsch, who completed probation but still owes fees and fines related to her charges, was eager to live in her own apartment and reconnect with her family.

“With this behind me, it’s put me right where I need to be,” she said.

Former Firstep client Shawn Staats said the program took most of his first disability check after he was injured working on a demotion crew. “It’s a slave camp,” Staats said. “They don’t care about recovery. All they care about is money.”
Credit Brianna Bailey / The Frontier

Program kept part of clients’ disability pay

Former Firstep client Shawn Staats, 42, was injured while working on a demolition crew at the program in March. After the accident, he says program leaders told him he was required to turn over part of his disability pay.

Staats signed up for the program after he was arrested and charged with methamphetamine possession in Carter County. He entered Firstep at his attorney’s suggestion to avoid being held in jail while his case worked its way through the court system.

Firstep assigned Staats to work on a demolition crew where he made minimum wage tearing out old sheetrock at an upscale apartment complex in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district called The Steelyard that has amenities like a coffee bar and a dog park. Firstep kept all but 5 percent of his pay.

Staats had only lived at Firstep for two weeks when he injured his shoulder while working atop a ladder, tearing out sheetrock from the ceiling of an apartment unit.

Staats says he alerted Firstep staff the next morning that he needed the day off work because his shoulder hurt. Later that day, he says a staff member told him to pack his belongings and leave.

“They told me I had 30 minutes to leave or I would be arrested for trespassing,” Staats said.

Staats tore his bicep tendon and rotator cuff, an injury that required shoulder surgery, according to documents filed with the Oklahoma Workers Compensation Commission.

Firstep’s workers’ compensation insurance paid for Staats’ surgery, but the recovery program kept part of his disability pay.

“It’s a slave camp,” Staats says. “They don’t care about recovery. All they care about is money.”

Oklahoma employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. If a worker is injured on the job, the insurance pays to cover things like medical care and lost wages.

One of those benefits is temporary total disability payments, sometimes called TTD. Temporary total disability payments are meant to compensate employees who are unable to work while recovering from an on-the job injury.

State law protects temporary total disability payments from most fees, fines, liens and garnishments. Child support payments are the only exception, said workers’ compensation attorney Bob Burke, who has represented injured workers in Oklahoma for 39 years.

“Firstep cannot legally take an injured workers’ TTD check, even if they had a contract that would allow them to,” Burke said. “State law would override any such contract.”

Hank Gaines, assistant director of the Firstep men’s program, gives a tour of the campus in Oklahoma City.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Staats moved into a halfway house after leaving Firstep, but the program still kept most of his first disability checks from workers’ compensation insurance, claiming it was money he owed for room and board.

The disability check — for $161 — was made out to Staats, but the insurance company mailed it to Firstep. Staats said he had to meet a Firstep staff member at a bank to cash the check. He got to keep $8 — about 5 percent.

Misener sprained his ankle while working on the same apartment complex demolition crew, just 10 days after Staats’ injured his shoulder. He fell and rolled his ankle after the scaffolding he was standing on toppled over.

After the injury, Misener’s foot was in a brace and he couldn’t work.

The day Misener got his first disability check, Firstep staff told him they couldn’t drive him to his physical therapy appointments and that he should go home and come back when he could work again.

Before Misener left, a Firstep staff member drove him to the bank to cash his disability check and took 95 percent of the money — all but $8.

Misener said it was the beginning of the month when he left the program, so he’s not sure why he owed Firstep the money.

“I just handed it to them you know and didn’t think nothing of it, not realizing that they were just trying to get my money,” he said.

Misener has multiple drug-related convictions. He entered the Firstep program voluntarily to get help with his addiction to methamphetamine.

He liked the program’s rural campus surrounded by trees and said he didn’t mind the hard work.

Misener tried to return to the program after his ankle healed and he was cleared to return to work but said he was told he wasn’t welcome back because he had hired an attorney to try and get additional benefits from Firstep’s workers’ compensation insurance.

“I called them and told them I was going back and they basically told me to go screw myself,” Misener said. “Told me that I could not come back because they were being sued by me.”

Firstep staff said it could not comment on individual cases, due to privacy reasons.

Former Firstep client Brandon Stehr, 34, was injured while working at a construction job in June 2017 when his work glove got caught in a drill, tearing the muscles in his right hand.

He had to have surgery after the accident — the cost was covered by Firstep’s workers’ compensation insurance. He still can’t make a fist and has problems touching his thumb to his index finger.

“I can’t even pick up a gallon of milk,” he said.

Stehr said a Firstep staff member took his temporary total disability check and put it in a desk drawer. 

“They told me they needed to go ahead and keep it,” Stehr said.

Stehr said the program gave his check back after he contacted an attorney and decided to voluntarily leave the program.

“I’m never going to get back my hand. It’s stiff. I can’t make a fist,” he said.

In an interview, Firstep leadership initially denied it kept a portion of any of its clients’ disability benefits. Firstep Executive Director Connie Schlittler said she was unaware the program was keeping any of its clients’ disability money.

Suzanne Graham, the program’s chief operating officer, also said she couldn’t remember any instance of Firstep keeping the money.

“I’m trying to think if there was any instance like this. It would be something we’d have to look

into,” she said during an interview at Firstep’s executive office.

A few hours later, while The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma were touring the Firstep men’s program, another staff member said Graham had authorized keeping client disability money. Graham personally met a client at a bank to cash a disability check in one instance, the staff member said.

After The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma asked Firstep about its practice of taking workers’ compensation benefits from clients, the program issued Misener and Staats refund checks.

Labor practices under investigation

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the Firstep program for how it compensates people recovering from addiction for their work while in the program.

Some of the Oklahoma employers who use workers from the Firstep program settled claims with the Department of Labor last year over unpaid overtime wages.

The Department of Labor confirmed it still has an active, ongoing investigation into the Firstep program, but would not disclose additional details.

After the Department of Labor began investigating the Firstep in 2017, the program changed some of its policies — including allowing participants to keep 5 percent of their paychecks. Before the investigation, Firstep kept all of the workers’ wages.

Schlittler said Firstep is still in negotiations with the Labor Department over how much it can deduct from its clients’ wages for things like housing, meals and utility costs.

Firstep clients sleep on bunk beds in open dorms, sharing a communal bathroom and kitchen.

According to federal guidelines, employers are only allowed to deduct the “reasonable cost” of housing from workers’ wages.

Employers are not allowed to make a profit from housing costs it deducts from wages, or deduct housing costs from overtime pay.

Firstep says the program costs residents $38 a day — about $1,200 a month. Residents typically make less than that at their minimum wage jobs, Schlittler said. The cost is offset by private donors.

“We’re kind of negotiating what is an appropriate fee and historically what was appropriate,” Schlittler said. “….I think a more complicated piece for us — how to calculate the value of the services and what we provide residents and what fair fees should be.”

One Firstep employer, the Oklahoma City-based produce supplier Vinyard Fruit & Vegetable Co., was found to owe 94 workers $3,916 in back wages as part of the Labor Department investigation. The company sells fresh-cut french fries and produce to restaurants and grocery stores.

Company owner Roy Vinyard was a longtime Firstep board member, but resigned after settling with the Labor Department. Vinyard did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Schlittler said Vinyard stepped down from the board in June to focus on new business projects.

After an arrest for selling marijuana, Logan Price attended the Firstep program in 2013, where he said he worked up to 55 hours a week at various jobs.
Credit Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Logan Price, 27, attended the Firstep program in 2013 after he was arrested for selling marijuana and worked part of the time in the Vinyard warehouse.

At Vinyard, Price said he and other participants fed heads of lettuce and onions through cutting machines and did other menial tasks.

He estimates he would work 50 to 55 hours a week, mainly split between Vinyard and at a computer recycling business, where he would tear out re-sellable rare earth metals from old electronics. On Saturdays, Price and other participants were sent out to cut grass and other yard work at private homes in the Oklahoma City area.

Price doesn’t recall filling out any tax forms, or ever receiving a W-2 from his time at Firstep. Vinyard or any of the other places he worked did not track the number of hours he worked, he said.

“We were just the guys that showed up with the name tags or whatever that day,” Price said. “And it was often different guys–like I said because the turnover was so high. So that’s what makes it feel really disgusting.”

Few of the men Price attended Firstep with graduated, he said. Most people left the program after a few days or weeks, he said.

After the Department of Labor investigation began last year, Firstep made extra landscaping work on Saturdays a volunteer activity as a way participants can earn extra money, Schlittler said. Firstep clients typically work 40 hours a week, she said.

In October 2017, Oklahoma City paid the U.S. Department of Labor $4,357 to settle claims it failed to pay Firstep participants overtime wages.

Firstep reimbursed the city for half of the settlement. Most of the unpaid overtime was for Firstep participants who worked cleaning a city-owned concert hall.

The Firstep workers cleaned the city’s Civic Center Music Hall between shows, where the number of hours worked can vary, said Amy Simpson, the city’s purchasing agent.

After the Department of Labor investigation, the city made changes to track the number of hours Firstep participants work, Simpson said.

“I just think that we we always saw this as contract labor and we didn’t understand that if we’re paying somebody an hourly rate, the Department of Labor sees that as we need to be responsible for the overtime,” she said.

Former Firstep client Rachel Porter, 33, attended the women’s program in 2016 and worked cleaning the Civic Center.

Facing charges for methamphetamine possession in Grady County — then still a felony in Oklahoma —  She entered the program in hopes of avoiding prison.

Porter estimates she worked about 40 hours a week cleaning the concert hall, sometimes working late into the night. Some of the other women she attended the program with worked alone on the graveyard shift at various Dunkin’ Donuts locations in the Oklahoma City area.

Porter said she never got any individual counseling, although there were daily 12-step meetings and a woman from a local church group would visit and take Firstep residents to church with her. “There’s no therapy, no healing, no compassion,” she said.

Sometimes, she would work until 2 a.m. cleaning the Civic Center. There were often bottles of alcohol in the concert hall dressing rooms and it was easy to sneak a drink, she said.

“Hell yeah we’re going to drink,” she said.

Porter relapsed twice while in the program — the last time when she smoked marijuana with a co-worker from the Civic Center who was not in the Firstep program.

According to a letter Firstep submitted to the court, Porter was kicked out of the program after testing positive for drugs on two consecutive urine screens.

She said she did not want to be assigned to work at the Civic Center, because the temptation to use drugs and alcohol was too strong for her there.

“It’s very triggering and tempting when they put you somewhere like that — there’s no rehab there,” she said.

After Firstep kicked her out of the program, a Grady County judge sentenced her to 15 years in prison for possession of methamphetamine.

Porter is now serving her sentence at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, where she said she’s doing well and taking college classes.

The city has since stopped contracting with Firstep to clean the Civic Center Music Hall. The cleaning contract is now handled by a private foundation, Simpson said.

Oklahoma City now requires Firstep workers to fill out a city time card to keep track of the number of hours worked.

But Jeromy Storment, 41, was court-ordered to attend Firstep from drug court in Haskell County in October 2017 and said the program instructed him not to report any overtime from the city on his timecard.

Storment graduated from Firstep in May and said the program provided no counseling outside of 12-step meetings run by the residents there.

At Firstep, Storment was assigned to work for the City of Oklahoma City, doing landscaping, painting and pouring concrete at Lake Overholser in preparation for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of a municipal dam there.

Storment said he worked anywhere from 45 to 50 hours a week, but Firstep instructed him not to report more than 7 and half hours of work a day on his timecard.

“It’s a work camp in my opinion,” Storment said. “It wasn’t as much rehabilitation as it was making sure you got up and went to work every day — if you were sick it didn’t matter.”

Close ties with companies and city

Firstep has a tightly interwoven relationship with the City of Oklahoma City. The city has awarded the program more than half a million dollars in federal funds in the past year to expand its men’s program.

Oklahoma City government relies on the Firstep program to provide it with unskilled laborers to do things like mow grass and pick up litter and clean fishing piers and boat docks around municipal reservoirs.

Firstep functions like a temporary employment agency for the city and other employers. The program typically charges $10 an hour per laborer and pays the workers minimum wage. The program then keeps 95 percent of the paychecks to pay for room, board and other expenses.

The Firstep’s men’s and women’s campuses near Lake Stanley Draper in far southeast Oklahoma City sits on rural land owned by the city’s Water Utility Trust. The nonprofit that runs Firstep, OKC Metro Alliance Inc., also holds a contract to operate the city’s detox center — Firstep clients do not work at the facility.

Retired Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White was instrumental in the founding of the Firstep program in the mid-1990s and helped arrange for the program to move onto an isolated piece of city land when residents in other parts of the protested a rehab program moving into the neighborhood.

White still hires men from the Firstep program to do chores on his acreage in southeast Oklahoma City on the weekends — jobs like feeding his horses and cutting grass. He pays the men for their work and also feeds them lunch, he said.

White said he’s witnessed the program help many people get sober over the years.

“It’s not the Betty Ford Center,” White said. “It’s not laying on your back and having some psychiatrist telling you how bad your mamma was, but work can be just as good as that sometimes.”

In November 2017, Oklahoma City granted Firstep a $457,000 no-interest loan to expand its men’s campus. Firstep plans to use the money to build 20 new single-occupancy dorms to encourage men to stay in the program longer.

The money for the loans came from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs geared toward encouraging the development of low-income housing.

The Oklahoma City Planning Department, which approved the loan, was unaware of the ongoing Labor Department investigation, said Kristy Yager, a spokeswoman for the city.

Last year, The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust also gave Firstep $193,000 in federal community development block grant money to improve its sewer system as part of its expansion plans.

Some clients say they never got counseling

Oklahoma has no laws that specifically govern work-based recovery programs, but Firstep says it wants to become certified as a halfway house by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

To get certified, Firstep would have to show the state it provides at least six hours a week of treatment services to its clients, a standard Firstep says it already meets through a mix of 12-step meetings and other programming.

None of the former Firstep clients The Frontier and StateImpact Oklahoma interviewed said they received any individual counseling while in the program. Firstep said sessions with licensed counselors are available to participants if they request it and meet certain qualifications.

The program works with Choctaw-based Tri-City Youth and Family Center to provide counseling services. However, Firstep does not cover any of the cost.

Firstep clients only get counseling from Tri-City if they qualify for services through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Firstep’s clients would qualify for the same state-funded services even if they weren’t in the Firstep program.

The form letters Firstep sends to the courts on behalf of its clients who have ongoing criminal cases state that its participants receive counseling from Tri-City “as needed or assigned.”

Tri-City said it does receive regular referrals for counseling from Firstep — 158 last year — and also has staff members on site at Firstep to provide services at its men’s and women’s campuses.

Donita Goodin, executive director for the counseling center, said Tri-City provided anywhere from 15 to 25 hours a week of programming at the Firstep men’s program and about 12 to 15 hours a week for women in the program.

Lack of options for many

At Firstep’s rural campus, the women sleep in rows of black-metal framed bunk beds in an austere but clean prefabricated metal building. The staff says volunteers offer opportunities for women in the program to do art projects, join a book club and attend Bible study.

The dorms at the Firstep men’s campus about four miles away are a little older and dingier looking, but still clean.

There’s a small pond and a chow hall where men sit at at picnic tables and eat off metal trays. Meal times correspond to the men’s work schedules at job sites across the Oklahoma City metro.

Devin Kiser, 37, entered Firstep after being in prison for nearly 12 years and works at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Kiser said he wouldn’t be able to afford other drug recovery programs, and he credits Firstep with helping him mature and rebuild bonds with his family.

“I’m standing right here, right now and it’s beautiful,” he said. “Life is great today.”

Real estate developer Gary Brooks, who has used Firstep workers hired through a subcontractor to work on some of his projects, including the restoration of the Oklahoma City art deco skyscraper the First National Center. Brooks said he’s gone on to hire some of the workers full-time after they complete the Firstep program.

He said he believes Firstep is a viable way to help people with criminal records a chance to get sober and find steady employment.

“There are thousands of people just like people in Firstep that just need a chance,” Brooks said. “They made a mistake or two and they’re highly qualified.”

The number of licensed drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs in Oklahoma is declining, federal data show. There were 191 treatment centers registered in 2017, the fewest in eight years, according to statistics from the National Inventory of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment Facilities.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Ken Stoner has ordered a handful of drug court participants to attend the Firstep program over the past year.

Stoner said the people he’s sent there have benefited from the structure of the program that requires them to get out of bed every day, work and attend meetings.

“The people we send out there tend to do really well,” he said.

Sometimes, Firstep is a stop-gap measure until he can get a drug court participant into a subsidized program.

“You have to look at these programs — they may not be perfect, but what else are you going to do with them,” Stoner said. “What is the best thing we can do for our participates right now? It’s a harm-reduction strategy.”

Recovery hopping

Firstep says only about 30 percent to 40 percent of its clients complete the six-month program and graduate.

Some people hop from one unregulated, work-based rehab to another in order to avoid being sent to prison or jail after their suspended sentence or probation is revoked for being kicked out of a program.

Amy Camp, 28, entered Firstep in June after pleading guilty to a drug charge in Okmulgee County. She got kicked out of the program in August after she was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with her work supervisor — a charge Camp says is untrue.

To appease her probation officer and avoid jail, Camp entered another work-based program in Muskogee called Ray’s House.

“My probation officer said I have two weeks to find another six-month program to get into,” Camp said after getting kicked out of Firstep. “I’m broke — I don’t have any money.”

Ray’s House requires participants to attend regular church services and hand over all of their wages. Like many work-based recovery program, Ray’s House provides no individual counseling to participants.

A state audit in 2015 found Ray’s House was improperly collecting its clients’ food stamp benefits.

In December, Camp was also kicked out of Ray’s House and said she feared being ordered to jail. Ray’s House said it could not comment on Camp’s case for privacy reasons.

Stehr can rattle off a list of work-based recovery programs he’s attended — all of them completely unregulated by the state of Oklahoma.

Firstep was actually one of the better-run programs, he said.

At CAAIR, a Christian program in Delaware County, Stehr said he worked up to 14 hours a day at a poultry plant and was required to attend church services on Sunday. The program kept all of his wages.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against another work-based program Stehr attended called DARP, Inc., in Tahlequah, accusing it of human trafficking.

Stehr also briefly attended another work-based program, Faith-Based Therapeutic Community Corp., in Fort Gibson, which housed people recovering from drug addiction in an unheated barn on a goat farm.

“I don’t think a person should have to work for rehab,” Stehr said. “It’s sad people get court-ordered to go to places like that.”

This story was based in part on ongoing reporting by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. To learn more about their reporting network and how to get involved, head over to revealnews.org/network.